Tokyo Haneda is the latest airport to play host to an increasingly familiar scene in recent times – saying goodbye to the Boeing 747.
On Saturday, it was Cathay Pacific’s turn to bid farewell to the iconic aircraft, with CX543 from the close-in Tokyo airport to Hong Kong the oneworld alliance member’s last revenue passenger flight with the 747-400.
Staff lined up alongside B-HUJ as it prepared for departure, marking the end of an era that began on August 4 1979 when Cathay’s first 747, 747-200 VR-HKG, took to the skies for the first time in passenger service.
There is an Australian connection to that milestone, with Cathay’s first destinations with the 747 from its Hong Kong hub being Sydney, via Melbourne.
Some 37 years later, the aircraft that accelerated Cathay’s transformation into one of the world’s premier network carriers has been retired in favour of big twins such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350.
Cathay general manager for operations and former 747 chief pilot Mark Hoey, an Australian, says the impact of the 747 on the city of Hong Kong was immense.
“The 747 fundamentally changed the way people were able to travel,” Hoey said in a statement.
“Being able to carry more people for far greater distances than before meant the 747 effectively shrunk the planet. The aircraft had a vital effect on the development of Hong Kong as an international aviation hub – and indeed, Hong Kong’s economic and tourism prospects. As a result, it helped make Hong Kong become a world city.”
Hoey, who flew three variants of the 747 – the -200, -300 and -400 – said it was a great aircraft to fly and generated great excitement for pilots given the long-haul routes it opened up.
“For such a large aircraft, the 747 is amazingly manoeuvrable,” Hoey said.
“It’s also very reliable and robust – which was very helpful during typhoon season in the old days of Kai Tak. It could do things that other aircraft couldn’t. It really is an outstanding piece of design and engineering.”
“The launch of new long-haul routes, thanks to the 747, was exciting, and Cathay made a name for itself by operating some of the longest flights of the era, like Gatwick [London] to Hong Kong nonstop for the first time by any airline, and later to the east coast of the United States.”
While 747 passenger services have ended, Cathay’s 20 Boeing 747 freighters (comprising one 747-400BCF, six 747-400ERFs and 13 747-8Fs) will continue to support global commerce by ferrying goods around the world for years to come.
Despite all of the 747’s ground-breaking achievements, not just for Cathay but airlines around the world, advances in aircraft and engine technology mean newer twin-engine jets can fly just as far and carry just as many passengers and cargo using less fuel.
In recent years, Singapore Airlines (April 2012), Air New Zealand (September 2014) and Air France (January 2016) are just three examples of carriers that have sent their 747 passenger variants into retirement.
And there are more to come, with Saudia set to end 747 passenger services before the end of 2016, while United has said previously it planned to accelerate the retirement of its 747s.
Closer to home, Qantas is expected to remain operating 747s for the foreseeable future. The Flying Kangaroo has 11 747s, a combination of six -400ERs and five -400s.
Although the Australian flag carrier has ordered new-generation 787s as a partial replacement for the “Queen of the Skies”, the 747s are still important for long over-water services to Johannesburg and Santiago.
A research note from thinktank CAPA – Centre for Aviation said the global fleet of in-service passenger/combi 747-400s was at 204 frames following the Cathay retirements.
Of those 65 per cent were held by six carriers – British Airways (38), United (21), KLM (19), Lufthansa (13), Qantas (11) and Thai Airways (10).
Other 747-400 operators included Delta (nine), China Airlines (8) and Korean Air and Virgin Atlantic, both with eight. Meanwhile, Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China also fly the Boeing’s newest passenger variant of the 747, the 747-8I
“Many operators can be presumed to shed their 747-400 fleets by 2020,” CAPA said in a research note dated October 1.
“It looks likely that the 747-400 passenger fleet will dip below 200 units by the end of 2016 or early 2017. At the same time the number of regular non-charter 747-400s will decrease to less than 150 as United and Delta complete retirement.
“The decrease is occurring in spite of low fuel prices. The drastic decline of fuel costs in recent times has prompted some airlines to retain 747s for longer, and in larger numbers, than previously planned; but others – like United – are accelerating retirement. Although no drastic increase in fuel price is forecast, any significant would accelerate 747 retirements.
“The 747-400 looks likely to fly into 2020, with the -8i even longer. Yet its prominence and reign as Queen of the Skies are long over.”